Review: Chevrolet 2012 Corvette ZR1

For a small fraction of the car-buying public, price is irrelevant. These people simply see something they want and buy it, regardless of cost.

You may picture this demographic buying Ferraris, or Bugattis, or even mammoth quantities of more prosaic stuff (“Fifteen BMW M3s, one for every Caribbean island I own? Hell yes!”). And they do. But some of them buy Corvettes. And when they buy Corvettes, they do not buy the cheap ones. Because that would be silly. And slow.

They buy this: the $113,500, 638-hp Corvette ZR1.

Forget for a moment that the ZR1 costs more than any other new Corvette. In supercar terms, this is pennies; a Ferrari 458 is more than twice as expensive, a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, over 10 times as much. Why, you ask, would the 1 percenters want something that plays at the bottom of the scale? Why bother with the cheap seats, even if that term is relative?

Simple: Supercars exist to provide insanity. And few mass-produced, warrantied machines are more insane than this.

Consider the alternatives. That 458? The chassis is flawless to the point of being distant, and you always get the feeling that the car hates you. Porsches? Almost universally lovely, but not as raw and toothsome as they once were. The Bugatti? A technological wonder and one of the fastest cars on earth, but it’s doing way more work than you are; a blindfolded Lindsay Lohan could break lap records with that thing, and she drives like a dead moose. There are Paganis and McLarens and Shelby SSCs and such, and they are all well and good, but they all come with caveats. Most are fiendishly impractical, emotionally dull, or both.

And then there’s the ZR1, which wants to both kill you and be your best friend. It also carries a 100,000-mile powertrain warranty, makes a hellacious noise, and looks much like an ordinary Corvette, so the cops won’t get suspicious. Happily, and unlike with most supercars, you can see out of it in traffic.

Words cannot describe the appeal.

The ZR1 is the biggest, baddest ‘Vette in Chevrolet’s arsenal. The supercharged 6.2-liter LS9 V-8 under the car’s carbon-fiber hood produces 638 hp and a massive 604 pound-feet of torque. Computer-controlled magnetorheological shocks — made by Delphi, and the same technology found on the Ferrari 599 GTB — are standard, as is a great deal of carbon-fiber bodywork, an aluminum frame shared with the base Corvette, and carbon-ceramic brakes. As on lesser Corvettes, a two-mode exhaust system keeps noise to a minimum unless you boot the throttle. Curb weight is a respectable 3,353 pounds, or roughly as heavy as a BMW 1-Series M Coupe, which makes about 300 fewer horsepower.

The ZR1 has been around since 2008, when it was introduced as a 2009 model. When Car and Driver tested one in late 2008, the magazine saw a 3.4-second sprint to 60 mph and a 7.6-second run to 100. Grip with the ZR1’s base tires is an astounding 1.07G. On a normal car, these numbers would be amazing. Coming from a machine that carries a 100,000-mile engine warranty, they are ridiculous.

There are few changes for 2012, save the addition of a $1,495 “High Performance Package” (kind of a redundant name, no?) that includes Michelin Pilot Sport Cup run-flat tires. For the uninitiated, this is what enthusiasts call an “R-compound” tire, DOT-certified street rubber that resembles a racing slick but is legal for road use. It offers more grip than the ZR1’s base tire, which is both ludicrous and awesome. The only penalty is a homicidal lack of grip when wet or cold. This is not an exaggeration. Want to die cold and fast? Drive a Sport-Cup-equipped ZR1 on a wintry mountain road, in the rain, with stability control off. If you live, pat yourself on the back and start buying lottery tickets.

At what point do you find yourself wrapped around a tree, dead and grinning?

Consider the engine. That blown V-8 dominates the ZR1 experience — there’s even a plastic window in the hood so you can look at it — to the point where you can think of nothing else while behind the wheel. But 638 hp? What do you do with that? Where do you go without breaking laws or bones? At what point do you find yourself wrapped around a tree, dead and grinning?

I spent one day with a 2012 ZR1 on public roads before the answers became obvious: Six hundred-plus ponies cannot be properly exercised on a highway. So you go to a track, as I did. You get comfortable with the car and its silly power, and then you turn traction control and the Corvette’s trick “active handling” stability-control system completely off (not counting full disable, there are five settings, from “Wet” to “Race”). And then you cackle until your face hurts, because you have just unlocked Darth Car, Evil Incarnate.

What we have here is simply a monster. In terms of user-friendly performance, durability, cost per mile, and longevity, the ZR1 might be the single most competent car on the planet. That hugely powerful engine idles like a Camry, only rocking or misfiring on the coldest of mornings. The throttle is long-throw and progressive, the better to meter out power without letting an involuntary leg twitch throw you into the nearest ditch. The twin-rotor Eaton supercharger whines a little as it builds boost, but the engine barely makes a sound around town. The adaptive shocks work wonders; they’re compliant and comfortable when needed, firm when not. Below 3000 rpm, you tend to forget you’re in anything other than a base Corvette ($50,575 and 430 hp, for the record).

So yes, you can be nice to the ZR1, and it likes that. Or you can nail the throttle, launching the tach needle into the next county. At which point the sky cracks open and your face melts, like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, only without the Nazis and a little more Holy Power of a Thousand Millennia raining down on upon humanity. Below 5500 rpm, the noise is a thundering boom. Above it, and all the way to the 6500-rpm redline, you hear nothing but a deafening, gut-trembling snarl, like a Stuka dive-bombing your lower intestine. It’s intoxicating. When you wake up, you’re two, maybe three time zones away, with no memory of what just happened. And a distinct desire to do it again, immediately.

For all the engine’s glory, however, the ZR1’s chassis is the real star. With the electronic aids on, the car is approachable and friendly and mean all at once. It cuts throttle in corners — a cool “bupbupbup” as cylinders are pulled — to keep sideways weirdness to a minimum. With everything off, the car is a flexible, diabolical contradiction. It desperately wants to frighten you but falls in line under a firm hand. It constantly begs for throttle and convinces you that you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. It’s stiffly sprung but lets you hammer over track curbing and bumps like they aren’t even there. The carbon-ceramic brakes gain pedal travel when hot but never go away, repeatedly pulling you down from triple-digit speeds and returning to street duty without a hiccup. The six-speed gearbox is slick and easy to shift, clutch effort light and surprisingly friendly. The adaptive shocks adjust themselves from corner to corner, sopping up curbs and seemingly changing bump stiffness — and thus turn-in feel — at different speeds. It’s amazing.

The ZR1 is intimidating at first, long and impossibly wide. On the first lap of the day, you’re scared of it. By the last, you’re exiting 90-mph corners sideways without a care in the world. Supercars aren’t supposed to behave like this.

There are two inexcusable drawbacks. One, the ZR1’s seats are ferociously unsupportive, with no lateral restraint in corners and weird bracing that can make long trips painful. And two, interior quality, even with the optional 3ZR Premium Equipment Group ($10,000, leather-wrapped dash, navigation, et cetera), needs help. The average $40,000 Audi feels more finely crafted than this.

GM has hinted that the next Corvette, due in 2014, will solve some of these issues. Perhaps. Either way, they dull the car’s substantial shine.

I don’t know anything about the GM men and women behind the ZR1; what they look like, what their backgrounds are, nothing. But I would bet you solid money they wake up in the morning — every single one — and piss excellence. When all is said and done, this is the greatest mass-produced speed machine the world has ever seen. Dollar for dollar, it gets no better.

Photos by Sam Smith/get-gadget

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